This evening’s Prom programme by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra was ambitious in its musical and conceptual scale: one of the most demanding piano concertos in the repertoire, a fate-laden symphony, and as if that were not enough, an orchestral account of the beginnings of the universe.

Oeter Oundjian conducting the RSNO at Usher Hall, Edinburgh © Mark Hamilton
Oeter Oundjian conducting the RSNO at Usher Hall, Edinburgh
© Mark Hamilton

Making his Proms debut, conductor Peter Oundjian took a brisk, clean approach to Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto that was well matched to the clarity of soloist Nikolai Lugansky’s playing. From the opening bars, both orchestra and pianist exuded an intense energy. Physically, Lugansky’s playing matched his sound – above the elbow, his body barely moved; all his power and commitment were concentrated on his hands, so that every note was exquisitely clear, even in the glissandi passages.

Lugansky has regularly worked with the RSNO and this is clearly a musical relationship that works well, with pianist and orchestra showing great sensitivity to each other: the piano responding to the calming influence of the flute solo after the energetic cadenza in the first movement, or the interplay in the final movement, when Lugansky’s eyes were firmly on his interlocutors in the brass section.

It’s tempting to think of Rachmaninov as being a romantic composer, and performances of his most popular works are often milked for emotion, and there was a hint of this familiar approach to Rachmaninov in the rich Russian-style darkness of the lower strings at the beginning of second movement, but the clarity and focus of this evening’s performance, from orchestra, conductor and soloist, went beyond the sumptuous melodies, bringing out the interesting detail and structure of Rachmaninov’s writing.

The stamina of the orchestra, particularly the brass section, through the two demanding Russian works on the programme would be commendable in itself, but they were preceded by a third hefty piece, the world première performance of Naresh Sohal’s Cosmic Dance, commissioned for the Proms. I was told that it had originally been a ten-minute commission, but it had grown to nearly an hour, although in fact, what was musically interesting about it could probably have been condensed into the original ten minutes. Sohal’s work combines Hindu cosmology with modern science, depicting the universe from chaotic beginnings and the big bang, taking in galaxies, black holes, the sun, moon and earth. The piece began promisingly, with an intriguing alto saxophone solo, before the theme was developed and passed round the winds, but it then degenerated into rather obvious clichés – a militaristic brass theme for the sun, mysterious flutes for the moon, and finally an attempt to depict all human life in a quick blast through the emotional spectrum. I was amused and impressed by Sohal’s inclusion of a black hole – not something you hear every day: apparently it sounds like manic trombone glissandi accompanied by a wind machine.

For a more profound consideration of our place in the universe, Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, with its exploration of the role of fate in human lives, does a good job. For the first three movements, I was puzzled by Oudjian’s approach; the emotional range was more contradictory than the old recording I remember from my teenage years, but his deliriously joyful account of the fourth movement made sense of everything that had gone before, for behind the sadness and bitterness of the first two movements, Oudjian found a promise of something better and hinted throughout at the resolution that was to come.

The subdued clarinet solo that opens the work was given a thoughtful shaping and punctuation, with a spaciousness that Oudjian returned to throughout the symphony: there was a clear separation before the brass statements of the fate theme in the second movement, so that they were less of an interruption, more a chorus-style comment, and there a dangerously long pause before the coda. The rather dark waltz of the third movement was thrown interestingly off-kilter by heavy accentuation of the weak beats in the flutes: among all the high-quality woodwind playing, the flautists stood out all evening for their crystal clear articulation, particularly in the final two movements of the Tchaikovsky.

As the orchestra launched into the final movement of the Tchaikovsky, any remaining dark clouds instantly lifted – there was a palpable sense of relief in the exuberance – perhaps from the musicians knowing that they were on the final strait after a long, hard evening. The seemingly indefatigable brass players kept up right to the end, and although they had been rather too loud throughout the symphony, the trombonists’ precision in the fast passages of the final bars was remarkable.

It’s easy to assume that the big Russian romantic pieces should be played in the traditionally lavish Russian style, but the intelligence and sensitivity of Oudjian’s approach shed new light on both works.